England edged to the brink of a first Six Nations title for five years with a 25-21 victory over Wales, but were forced to survive a late fightback that evoked memories of the final-quarter collapse against their old rivals at last autumn’s World Cup.
Eddie Jones’ men led 19-0 and 25-7 during the second half through an Anthony Watson try and the boot of Owen Farrell, who kicked six penalties and one conversion, but their defence fell apart in a dramatic finish.
Adding to Dan Biggar’s earlier touchdown, George North and Toby Faletau crossed in the final six minutes to send ripples of panic through the Twickenham stands before one final Welsh assault down the left touchline was successfully repelled. Both tries were scored while Dan Cole was in the sin-bin.
If Scotland beat France today, England will be crowned champions with a round to spare – the first time that has been achieved – and will go to Paris next weekend with the Grand Slam in their sights.
English confidence will have grown after a win that offers partial redemption for the loss to Warren Gatland’s team in September, a result that initiated England’s World Cup exit and that still left a lingering sense of foreboding when Wales threatened another unlikely comeback.
Maro Itoje was outstanding in only his second start and third Test appearance, stealing opposition line-out, poaching ball and even making the break that led to Watson’s try and the 21-year-old finished as man of the match.
Itoje received strong support from a fine England cast including Ben Youngs and Jack Nowell, but the late collapse will concern Jones.
Worrying scenes interrupted the third quarter when Wales captain Sam Warburton required several minutes of medical attention: he was driven from pitch on the medical cart with his neck in a brace, in the process signalling to the crowd he was conscious.
It was successful return to Test duty for Craig Joubert, who played his role in a fast-paced game on his return to Twickenham – where he sprinted down the tunnel after awarding Australia an erroneous penalty which cost Scotland victory in the World Cup quarter-final.
England had early pressure and when Wales infringed a Farrell was off the mark before a scrum penalty was converted and when Dan Lydiate was penalised for not releasing the lead had been extended to nine points as the first quarter passed.
England’s onslaught continued and quick ball allowed Itoje to evade two feeble tackles before Brown drew Liam Williams and sent Watson over for his tenth try in 19 internationals, converted by Farrell.
Farrell extended the lead early in the second half to make it 19-0 but, after much Welsh pressure, Ford took too long over a clearance, Biggar charging down to score and then converting his own try.
The Welsh revival continued and Twickenham fell silent for a spell, but with Farrell adding two penalties in quick succession they had pulled ahead 25-7.
After Cole was sin-binned for collapsing a maul, North went over for a try and when Faletau crossed, Wales had two and a half minutes to rescue the game but they had run out of time despite a final charge from North when he was unlucky to be ruled in touch.